Generally speaking, the last piece of news leading up to the release of a high-profile rhythm game is the announcement of a complete songlist. So when Activision unveiled the last batch of songs from Guitar Hero 5 a couple of weeks ago, you'd be forgiven for thinking there wasn't much left to show in this latest installment of the seminal rhythm franchise. More to the point: You'd be forgiven, but you'd also be wrong. A few days ago, Activision held an event here in San Francisco to show off some of the big new features it has been keeping under wraps these past few months.
The big news of the night was the announcement of forward compatibility with previous Guitar Hero games. If you take a look at your copy of Guitar Hero: World Tour or the more recently released Smash Hits, you'll see an ID code printed on the back of the manual. You can take that code, enter it into the Guitar Hero 5 Import Songs menu, and download an unspecified number of songs from that game after paying what Activision calls a "nominal relicensing fee" (don't get too worked up; Rock Band 2 made users pay $5 to import songs from the original game). So far, only World Tour and Smash Hits are confirmed, but it looks like other games from the Guitar Hero library will probably be supported as well. This feature is said to work the same in Band Hero and Guitar Hero 5.
The compatibility also extends to downloadable content originally released for Guitar Hero: World Tour. Activision says 152 of the 158 World Tour DLC songs will be supported in Guitar Hero 5. What you'll need to do is download a free update, which adds on new features, such as band moments and vocal star power, that weren't present in World Tour. These songs will then be playable in all the major game modes in Guitar Hero 5, including Career mode and the new Party Play mode that we detailed in our last look at the game.
Another big focus for the evening was the unveiling of modifications made to the music studio that debuted in World Tour, which allows players to create their own songs for the first time in the series. It has been heavily revamped in a number of ways, starting with GH Mix 2.0. Neversoft wanted to take the original studio and make it more accessible from a usability and interface standpoint while adding even more depth for advanced users. In terms of making the system easier to use, all major functions (like record) have been mapped to the five colored fret buttons, which means there's a lot less scrolling around to highlight the option you want to select. You can also rewind and fast-forward through your song using the whammy bar, going slowly by pressing lightly or speeding through the song by holding it all the way down. Additionally, you can go into the new Pattern mode to swap around giant chunks of your song, moving entire verses, choruses, and bridges as easily as you would move colored blocks on the screen.
Neversoft has also devoted a lot of attention to making sure the instruments have a more authentic sound when you're recording songs. As an example, guitar work is now velocity sensitive, which means the studio can tell the difference between a light and heavy strum, reflecting that in your ability to record quiet, subdued parts versus louder parts. You can also add note expressions to guitar riffs, such as bends, slides, and vibrato. If you don't like a particular note, you can edit each specific note with a variety of parameters without rerecording that entire riff. Professional instrument samples have been added to every instrument as well, creating a much more realistic tone than the one offered in World Tour.
If GH Mix 2.0 is for advanced users, then GH Jam is for casual ones. In this mode, you can select a musical style, then jump right in and either play with a complete band made up of your friends or by yourself with automated instrument backing parts provided by the game. You can choose from 14 musical styles that influence the sound of the instruments, including punk, classic rock, heavy metal, and even NES-style chip tunes. You'll get a visualizer on the screen that matches your musical style as you play, including psychedelic colors for classic rock and 8-bit sprites for chip tunes.
Some of the other enhancements you'll find in the studio have to do with the way sharing songs work in GH Tunes. The system of ranking and finding songs other users have uploaded works very similarly to how it did in World Tour, but the big difference now is in how much you can share. The song time limit has been extended from three minutes to 10 minutes, while the maximum number of songs you can upload has gone from five to 50. If there's one bit of bad news, it's that you can't edit songs created in World Tour's music studio and use all the new effects and options, but certainly, the improvements look like they should outweigh the bad. You can start recordings songs on your own when Guitar Hero 5 arrives on September 1.